فصل 69

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CHAPTER

69

Dawn broke, gilding the low-lying mists snaking over the plains of the mortal land.

Hybern had razed everything from the Spring Court down to the few miles before the sea.

Including my village.

There was nothing left but smoking cinders and crumbled stone as we marched past.

And my father’s estate … One-third of the house remained standing, the rest wrecked. Windows shattered, walls cracked down to the foundation.

Elain’s garden was trampled, little more than a mud pit. That proud oak near the edge of the property—where Nesta had liked to stand in the shade and overlook our lands … It had been burned into a skeletal husk.

It was a personal attack. I knew it. We all did. The king had ordered our livestock killed. I’d gotten the dogs and horses out the night before—along with the servants and their families. But the riches, the personal touches … Looted or destroyed.

That Hybern had not lingered to decimate what was left standing of the house, Cassian told me, suggested he did not want us gaining too much on him. He’d establish his advantage—pick the right battlefield. We had no doubt that finding the empty villages along the way whetted the king’s rage. And there were enough towns and villages that we had not reached in time that we hurried.

An easier feat in theory than in practice, with an army of our size and made up of so many differently trained soldiers, with so many leaders giving orders about what to do.

The Illyrians were testy—yanking at the leash, even under Lord Devlon’s strict command. Annoyed that we had to wait for the others, that we couldn’t just fly ahead and intercept Hybern, stop them before they could select the battlefield.

I watched Cassian lay into two different captains within the span of three hours—watched him reassign the grumbling soldiers to hauling carts and wagons of supplies, pulling some off the honor of being on the front lines. As soon as the others saw that he meant every word, every threat … the complaining ceased.

Keir and his Darkbringers watched Cassian, too—and were wise enough to keep any discontent off their tongues, their faces. To keep marching, their dark armor growing muddier with every passing mile.

During the brief midday break in a large meadow, Nesta and I climbed inside one of the supply caravan’s covered wagons to change into Illyrian fighting leathers. When we emerged, Nesta even buckled a knife at her side. Cassian had insisted, yet he’d admitted that since she was untrained, she was just as likely to hurt herself as she was to hurt someone else.

Elain … She’d taken one look at us in the swaying grasses outside that wagon, the legs and assets on display, and turned crimson. Viviane stepped in, offering a Winter Court fashion that was far less scandalous: leather pants, but paired with a thigh-length blue surcoat, white fur trimming the collar. In the heat, it’d be miserable, but Elain was thankful enough that she didn’t complain when we again emerged from the covered wagon and found our companions waiting. She refused the knife Cassian handed her, though.

Went white as death at the sight of it.

Azriel, still limping, merely nudged aside Cassian and extended another option.

“This is Truth-Teller,” he told her softly. “I won’t be using it today—so I want you to.”

His wings had healed—though long, thin scars now raked down them. Still not strong enough, Madja had warned him, to fly today.

The argument with Rhys this morning had been swift and brutal: Azriel insisted he could fly—fight with the legions, as they’d planned. Rhys refused. Cassian refused. Azriel threatened to slip into shadow and fight anyway. Rhys merely said that if he so much as tried, he’d chain Azriel to a tree.

And Azriel … It was only when Mor had entered the tent and begged him—begged him with tears in her eyes—that he relented. Agreed to be eyes and ears and nothing else.

And now, standing amongst the sighing meadow grasses in his Illyrian armor, all seven Siphons gleaming …

Elain’s eyes widened at the obsidian-hilted blade in Azriel’s scarred hand. The runes on the dark scabbard.

“It has never failed me once,” the shadowsinger said, the midday sun devoured by the dark blade. “Some people say it is magic and will always strike true.” He gently took her hand and pressed the hilt of the legendary blade into it. “It will serve you well.”

“I—I don’t know how to use it—”

“I’ll make sure you don’t have to,” I said, grass crunching as I stepped closer.

Elain weighed my words … and slowly closed her fingers around the blade.

Cassian gawked at Azriel, and I wondered how often Azriel had lent out that blade—

Never, Rhys said from where he finished buckling on his own weapons against the side of the wagon. I have never once seen Azriel let another person touch that knife.

Elain looked up at Azriel, their eyes meeting, his hand still lingering on the hilt of the blade.

I saw the painting in my mind: the lovely fawn, blooming spring vibrant behind her. Standing before Death, shadows and terrors lurking over his shoulder. Light and dark, the space between their bodies a blend of the two. The only bridge of connection … that knife.

Paint that when we get home.

Busybody.

I peered over my shoulder to Rhys, who stepped up to our little circle in the grass. His face remained more haggard than usual, lines of strain bracketing his mouth. And I realized … I would not get that last night with him. Last night—that had been the final night. We’d spent it winnowing—

Don’t think like that. Don’t go into this battle thinking you won’t walk off again. His gaze was sharp. Unyielding.

Breathing became difficult. This break is the last time we’ll all be here—talking.

For this final leg of the march we were about to embark on … It would take us right to the battlefield.

Rhys lifted a brow. Would you like to go into that wagon for a few minutes, then? It’s a little cramped between the weapons and supplies, but I can make it work.

The humor—as much for me as it was for him. I took his hand, realizing the others were talking quietly, Mor having sauntered over in full, dark armor, Amren … Amren was in Illyrian leathers, too. So small—they must have been built for a child.

Don’t tell her, but they were.

My lips tugged toward a smile. But Rhys stared at all of us, somehow assembled here in the sun-drenched open grasses without being given the order. Our family—our court. The Court of Dreams.

They all quieted.

Rhys looked them each in the eye, even my sisters, his hand brushing the back of my own.

“Do you want the inspiring talk or the bleak one?” he asked.

“We want the real one,” Amren said.

Rhys pushed his shoulders back, elegantly folding his wings behind him. “I believe everything happens for a reason. Whether it is decided by the Mother, or the Cauldron, or some sort of tapestry of Fate, I don’t know. I don’t really care. But I am grateful for it, whatever it is. Grateful that it brought you all into my life. If it hadn’t … I might have become as awful as that prick we’re going to face today. If I had not met an Illyrian warrior-in-training,” he said to Cassian, “I would not have known the true depths of strength, of resilience, of honor and loyalty.” Cassian’s eyes gleamed bright. Rhys said to Azriel, “If I had not met a shadowsinger, I would not have known that it is the family you make, not the one you are born into, that matters. I would not have known what it is to truly hope, even when the world tells you to despair.” Azriel bowed his head in thanks.

Mor was already crying when Rhys spoke to her. “If I had not met my cousin, I would never have learned that light can be found in even the darkest of hells. That kindness can thrive even amongst cruelty.” She wiped away her tears as she nodded.

I waited for Amren to offer a retort. But she was only waiting.

Rhys bowed his head to her. “If I had not met a tiny monster who hoards jewels more fiercely than a firedrake …” A quiet laugh from all of us at that. Rhys smiled softly. “My own power would have consumed me long ago.”

Rhys squeezed my hand as he looked to me at last. “And if I had not met my mate …” His words failed him as silver lined his eyes.

He said down the bond, I would have waited five hundred more years for you. A thousand years. And if this was all the time we were allowed to have … The wait was worth it.

He wiped away the tears sliding down my face. “I believe that everything happened, exactly the way it had to … so I could find you.” He kissed another tear away.

And then he said to my sisters, “We have not known each other for long. But I have to believe that you were brought here, into our family, for a reason, too. And maybe today we’ll find out why.”

He surveyed them all again—and held out his hand to Cassian. Cassian took it, and held out his other for Mor. Then Mor extended her other to Azriel. Azriel to Amren. Amren to Nesta. Nesta to Elain. And Elain to me. Until we were all linked, all bound together.

Rhys said, “We will walk onto that field and only accept Death when it comes to haul us away to the Otherworld. We will fight for life, for survival, for our futures. But if it is decided by that tapestry of Fate or the Cauldron or the Mother that we do not walk off that field today …” His chin lifted. “The great joy and honor of my life has been to know you. To call you my family. And I am grateful—more than I can possibly say—that I was given this time with you all.”

“We are grateful, Rhysand,” Amren said quietly. “More than you know.”

Rhys gave her a small smile as the others murmured their agreement.

He squeezed my hand again as he said, “Then let’s go make Hybern very ungrateful to have known us, too.”

I could smell the sea long before we beheld the battlefield. Hybern had chosen well.

A vast, grassy plain stretched to the shore. A mile inland, he had planted his army.

It rippled away, a dark mass spreading to the eastern horizon. Rocky foothills arose at his back—some of his army also stationed atop them. Indeed, even the plain seemed to slope upward to the east.

I lingered at Rhysand’s side atop a broad knoll overlooking the plain, my sisters, Azriel, and Amren close behind. At the distant front lines far ahead, Helion, resplendent in golden armor and a rippling red cape, gave the order to halt. Armies obeyed, shifting into the positions they’d sorted out.

The host we faced, though … they were waiting. Poised.

So many. I knew without counting that we were vastly outnumbered.

Cassian landed from the skies, stone-faced, all of his Siphons smoldering as he crossed the flat-topped knoll in a few steps. “The prick took every inch of high ground and advantage he could find. If we want to rout them, we’ll have to chase them up into those hills. Which I have no doubt he’s already calculated. Likely set with all kinds of surprises.” In the distance, those naga-hounds began snarling and howling. With hunger.

Rhys only asked, “How long do you think we have?”

Cassian clenched his jaw, glancing at my sisters. Nesta was watching him keenly; Elain monitored the army from our minor elevation, face white with dread. “We have five High Lords, and there’s only one of him. You all could shield us for a while. But it might not be in our interest to drain every one of you like that. He’ll have shields, too—and the Cauldron. He’s been careful not to let us see the full extent of his power. I have no doubt we’re about to, though.”

“He’ll likely be using spells,” I said, remembering that he’d trained Amarantha.

“Make sure Helion is on alert,” Azriel offered, limping to Rhys’s side. “And Thesan.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Rhys said to Cassian.

Cassian sized up Hybern’s unending army, then our own. “Let’s say it goes badly. Shields shattered, disarray, he uses the Cauldron … A few hours.”

I closed my eyes. During that time, I’d have to get across the battlefield before us, find wherever he kept the Cauldron, and stop it.

“My shadows are hunting for it,” Azriel said to me, reading my face as I opened my eyes. His jaw clenched at the words. He was supposed to have been searching for it himself. He flared and settled his wings, as if testing them. “But the wards are strong—no doubt reinforced by the king after you shredded through his at the camp. You might have to go on foot. Wait until the slaughter starts getting sloppy.”

Cassian dipped his head and said to Amren, “You’ll know when.”

She nodded sharply, crossing her arms. I wondered if she’d said good-bye to Varian.

Cassian clapped Rhys on the shoulder. “On your command, I’ll get the Illyrians into the skies. We advance on your signal after that.”

Rhys nodded distantly, attention still fixed on that overwhelming army.

Cassian took a step away, but looked back at Nesta. Her face was hard as granite. He opened his mouth, but seemed to decide against whatever he was about to say. My sister said nothing as Cassian shot into the sky with a powerful thrust of his wings. Yet she tracked his flight until he was hardly more than a dark speck.

“I can fight on foot,” Azriel said to Rhys.

“No.” There was no arguing with that tone.

Azriel seemed like he was debating it, but Amren shook her head in warning and he backed down, shadows coiling at his fingers.

In silence, we watched our army settle into neat, solid lines. Watched the Illyrians lift into the skies at whatever silent command Rhys sent to Cassian, forming mirror lines above. Siphons glinted with color, and shields locked into place, both magical and metal. The ground itself shook with each step toward that demarcation line.

Rhys said into my mind, If Hybern has a lock on my power, he will sense me sneaking across the battlefield.

I knew what he was implying. You’re needed here. If we both disappear, he’ll know.

A pause. Are you afraid?

Are you?

His violet eyes caught mine. So few stars now shone within them. “Yes,” he breathed. Not for myself. For all of you.

Tarquin barked an order far ahead, and our unified army came to a halt, like some mighty beast pausing. Summer, Winter, Day, Dawn, and Night—each court’s forces clearly marked by the alterations in color and armor. In the faeries who fought alongside the High Fae, ethereal and deadly. A legion of Thesan’s Peregryns flapped into rank beside the Illyrians, their golden armor gleaming against the solid black of our own.

No sign of Beron or Eris—not a whisper of Autumn coming to assist us. Or Tamlin.

But Hybern’s army did not advance. They might as well have been statues. The stillness, I knew, was more to unnerve us.

“Magic first,” Amren was explaining to Nesta. “Both sides will try to bring down the shields around the armies.”

As if in answer, they did. My magic writhed in response to the High Lords unleashing their might—all but Rhysand.

He was saving his power for once the shields came down. I had no doubt Hybern himself was doing the same across the plain.

Shields faltered on either side. Some died. Not many, but a few. Magic against magic, the earth shuddering, the grass between the armies withering and turning to ash.

“I forgot how boring this part is,” Amren muttered.

Rhys shot her a dry look. But he prowled to the edge of our little outlook, as if sensing the stalemate was soon to break. He’d deliver a mighty, devastating blow to the army the moment their shield buckled. A veritable tidal wave of night-kissed power. His fingers curled at his sides.

To my left, Azriel’s Siphons glowed—readying to unleash blasts to echo Rhysand’s. He might not be able to fight, but he would wield his power from here.

I came to Rhys’s side. Ahead, both shields were wobbling at last.

“I never got you a mating present,” I said.

Rhys monitored the battle ahead. His power rumbled beneath us, surging from the shadowy heart of the world.

Soon. A matter of moments. My heart thundered, sweat beading my brow—not just from the summer heat now thick across the field.

“I’ve been thinking and thinking,” I went on, “about what to get you.”

Slowly, so slowly, Rhys’s eyes slid to mine. Only a chasm of power lay within them—blotting out those stars.

I smiled at him, bathing in that power, and sent an image into his mind.

Of the column of my spine, now inked from my base to my nape with four phases of the moon. And a small star in the middle of them.

“But, I’ll admit,” I said as his eyes flared, “this mating gift is probably for both of us.”

Hybern’s shield came crashing down. My magic snapped from me, cleaving through the world. Revealing the glamour I’d had in place for hours.

Before our front line … A cloud of darkness appeared, writhing and whirling on itself.

“Mother above,” Azriel breathed. Right as a male figure appeared beside that swirling ebony smoke.

Both armies seemed to pause with surprise.

“You retrieved the Ouroboros,” Rhys whispered.

For standing before Hybern were the Bone Carver and the living nest of shadows that was Bryaxis, the former contained and freed in a Fae body by myself last night. Both bound to obey by the simple bargain now inked onto my spine. “I did.”

He scanned me from head to toe, the wind stirring his blue-black hair as he asked softly, “What did you see?”

Hybern was stirring, frantically assessing what and who now stood before them. The Carver had chosen the form of an Illyrian soldier in his prime. Bryaxis remained within the darkness roiling around it, the living tapestry it would use to reveal the nightmares of its victims.

“Myself,” I said at last. “I saw myself.”

It was, perhaps, the one thing I would never show him. Anyone. How I had cowered and raged and wept. How I had vomited, and screamed, and clawed at the mirror. Slammed my fists into it. And then curled up, trembling at every horrific and cruel and selfish thing I’d beheld within that monster—within me. But I had kept watching. I did not turn from it.

And when my shaking stopped, I studied it. All of those wretched things. The pride and the hypocrisy and the shame. The rage and the cowardice and the hurt.

Then I began to see other things. More important things—more vital.

“And what I saw,” I said quietly to him as the Carver raised a hand. “I think—I think I loved it. Forgave it—me. All of it.” It was only in that moment when I knew—I’d understood what the Suriel had meant. Only I could allow the bad to break me. Only I could own it, embrace it. And when I’d learned that … the Ouroboros had yielded to me.

Rhys arched a brow, even as awe crept across his face. “You loved all of it—the good and the bad?”

I smiled a bit. “Especially the bad.” The two figures seemed to take a breath—a mighty inhale that had Bryaxis’s dark cloud contracting. Readying to spring. I inclined my head to my mate. “Here’s to a long, happy mating, Rhys.”

“Seems like you beat me to it.”

“To what?”

With a wink, Rhys pointed toward Bryaxis and the Carver. Another figure appeared.

The Carver stumbled back a step. And I knew—from the slim, female figure, the dark, flowing hair, the once-again beautiful face … I knew who she was.

Stryga—the Weaver.

And atop the Weaver’s dark hair … A pale blue jewel glittered.

Ianthe’s jewel. A blood trophy as the Weaver smiled at her twin, gave him a mocking bow, and faced the host before them. The Carver halted his slow retreat, stared at his sister for a long moment, then turned to the army once more.

“You’re not the only one who can offer bargains, you know,” Rhys drawled with a wicked smile.

The Weaver. Rhys had gotten the Weaver to join us— “How?”

He angled his neck, revealing a small, curling tattoo behind his ear. “I sent Helion to bargain on my behalf—that was why he was in the Middle that day he found you. To offer to break the containment spell on the Weaver … in exchange for her services today.”

I blinked at my mate. Then grinned, not bothering to hide the savagery within it. “Hybern has no idea about the hell that’s about to rain down upon them, do they.”

“Here’s to family reunions,” was all Rhys said.

Then the Weaver, the Carver, and Bryaxis unleashed themselves upon Hybern.

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